Populism And Staying Power


2016 has been a year when world politics has turned upside-down. The electoral success of many populist leaders around the world, whether in the developing or the developed world, has overturned many of the post-WWII conventions regarding politics and democracy. Populism is when politicians claim they derive legitimacy directly from the people, usually expressed as election results, rather than the political system. As a result, populist leaders have the tendency to ignore a country’s laws in pursuit of their agenda, which they claim is for the benefit of the people. Perhaps we should not be overly surprised by this development. The inability of established political institutions and orthodox combating of the aftermath of the Great Recession, as well as the continued expansion of inequality in, almost all, societies of the world has given ample reasons for unorthodox, populist leaders to rise to power. However, strangely, many countries that were not hit hard by the Great Recession, including Sweden and the Netherlands, have also seen an upsurge in the popularity of the radical parties. Many of the factors that propelled these populist, illiberal leaders to power have been festering for some time now, including the global migration crisis, the fragmentation of public opinion, and the relative decline of liberal democracies economic and political clout in the world. As 2016 gives way to 2017, many of the elements that have made many of the events in 2016 so unexpected will continue to persist. While we may hope for a saner and less polarized year to come, it is more likely that radical politics and tensions will continue into 2017 and beyond.

The First and the Third World

The rise of radical firebrands has alarmed many political scientists and moderates. There has been an increased mainstreaming of right-wing rhetoric on nationalism, the caricature of refugees, and inflammatory speeches that single out segments of the population for disloyalty and as legitimate targets. Among the most prominent changes in 2016 is the success of Donald Trump in the United States, who rode into power on a wave of anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, and anti-Chinese rhetoric with further criticisms aimed at America’s allies over supposedly free-riding. Across the Atlantic, the rising influence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in making Brexit possible and being one of its major architects, as well as targeting EU workers paradoxically as both stealing jobs and as welfare thieves. Then there are the wider populist sentiments on the continent, ranging from the long-time contender, Marie Le Pen of Front Nationale, to the more obscure and outright racist parties, such as Alternatives for Deutschland, and the Freedom party of Austria. Populist parties have enjoyed unprecedented successes in 2016 in Europe, usually in the form of rising polling numbers. These disturbing trends have led many to question the future of the European Union, given the resurgence of nationalism in its member states.[1]

The populist sentiment is also gaining traction in the other major developed region in the world, East Asia. Park Geun-Hye is a casualty of the rising populist sentiment among the South Korean population. There has been a new strand of firebrand politics in South Korea that mobilized disgruntled citizens. Reasons suspected for this discontent and the increasingly populist challenges mounting against the traditional political establishment may be due to the declining economic growth and the perceived unresponsive of a corrupt government.[2] In Taiwan, the new DPP government that came into power in May, who were partially riding on a platform of anti-free trade with the mainland, which the DPP, like Donald Trump and other populists, accuses as unfairly enriching the capitalist elites. There were also tensions between the “native Taiwanese” (not the Taiwanese Aboriginals, but mostly the descendants of non-aboriginal migrants to Taiwan pre-1949) and the “Mainland Chinese” (post-1949 Mainland Chinese that moved to Taiwan with the defeated KMT government) has led to a few dramatic incidents. A video in June of a self-described “journalist” hurling insults at retirees to tell them to “go back to China” and calling the retirees “welfare queens” has led to much controversy on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.[3] East Asian populism, however, has fallen beneath the Western media radar in many instances, with Foreign Affairs even claiming there is little populism in East Asia.[4]

The rise of populism is not limited to the developed world. Populism in the Third World has also contributed to the madness that is 2016. The rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the terrifying policies that he implemented there may be heralding a new era of illiberal democracy in the Philippines, if not the region. Riding on a wave of populist, tough-on-drugs rhetoric, Duterte’s vigilantes have led to international human rights condemnations, to which Duterte had responded with outrageous claims, such as withdrawing the Philippines from the United Nations. Then, there is also Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian government under Nicolas Maduro. After the failed economic policies and rising inflation due to falling oil prices, the Maduro government has also taken on the “us versus them” rhetoric and has been using conspiracy theories to stir populist support for his government. Maduro has resorted to blaming “bourgeoisie conspiracy that paralyzed production, causing shortages”[5] and other outbursts, rather than trying to solve the country’s overdependence on oil, does not bode well for Venezuela’s future stability or economic development.


Although many of these fringe parties are labeled as isolationist, nationalist, or anti-globalists, this is not the case. Many nationalists of all stripes have cobbled together into a loose coalition who are united by their internationalist skepticism, contempt for liberalism, and their seeming hatred for the established political system. This is most notable with Trump, who on the one hand supported Brexit and American exceptionalism, while on the other hand seemed to be intent on curbing press freedom and flaunting the Constitution. Nonetheless, Trump still seemed intent on maintaining the American hegemony, while apparently seeking an alliance with Vladimir Putin and other nationalist leaders. In Europe, Nigel Farage, Marie Le Pen, and other Euro-skeptics were among the first to congratulate Donald Trump on his election victory, or working with each other in achieving in the overturning of the European Union.

Outside of Europe, populism and international trade are not necessarily conflicting agendas. Given the more positive view of trade in Asia, Asian populists can also be perfect internationalists in contrast to their European counterparts. One of the Taiwanese governing party’s, the Democratic Progressive Party’s platforms in the 2015 election had been a diversification of trade partners away from “overreliance” on mainland China to encourage more trade with South Asia and Japan. The DPP was also very enthusiastic regarding the prospect of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership before Trump came to power. Similarly in Korea, despite the sagging economy playing a role in the plummeting popularity of Park, so far there is little sign that the idea of economic autarchy has gained a significant traction in South Korea.


One of the common driving factors for the rise of populism around the world seems to be the stagnant international economy in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession. In Europe, the earliest signs of rising populism began in Greece in 2009 with the Golden Dawn party protesting against Austerity, before it spread into Northern Europe. Similarly, in Asia, the stagnating economies in South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines prompted the public to demand the immediate overthrow of incumbents who were skirting on the fringes of legality. Given that the effects of the Great Recession are likely to linger for quite some time, populists themselves may soon find they have difficulty in fulfilling their promises and propose even more radical solutions.

Many of these trends have already been in motion before 2016 and will continue into 2017. However, we should also not exaggerate the impact that populists can have on liberal democracy. Given that PiS’ struggle in Poland to undermine the Polish Supreme Court, Brexit failing people’s expectations, and Trump already forced to moderate his stance on some of his more radical policies, populists are unlikely to make a hugely significant dent in the short-run. On the other hand, global politics is changed due to the rise of populism, especially as these groups become better at working with each other. Respect for liberal democracy has fallen to record low numbers,[6] and the same force that put Obama in power 8 years before, “change,” is now driving the demagogues. We are likely to see a more polarized world in 2017, with more xenophobia, homophobia, and sexist remarks by world leaders, as well as more attempts at rolling back constitutions and blatant disregard of laws.


Populism is rising everywhere. While populist’s everywhere share similarities, populism also comes in many varieties, including the anti-free trade and anti-immigration parties in the Western world, or the more anti-establishment, but pro-free trade populists in Asia. Populism is driven by different factors in different regions. The rise of the populist movement in the Western developed world appear to be mainly driven by the fear of immigration and Islamophobia, especially as the global economy remains stagnant in the aftermath of the Great Recession.[7] In East Asia, discontent with the incumbent government seemed to be the cause in South Korea, while the fear of PRC and resentment of the previous KMT government drove some of the most radical elements in Taiwanese politics. Duterte was catapulted into power mainly based on his perceived “tough on crime agenda,” while Maduro is trying to channel the ghost of Chavez in blaming the United States for his country’s economic woes. What unites these populists, however, is their direct appeal to a “popular mandate,” which they believe grants them the power to circumnavigate the nations’ laws. From the DPP’s questionable involvement with the “Jasmine Revolution” in 2011 to Duterte claiming his actions are justified by his high polling rate to Donald Trump’s Twitter posts, populism and illiberal democracies are likely to be more prevalent in the future.


Lai, Xiao Tong. “Bu Man lǎo róng mín bèi rǔ  dà chén jū mín kàng yì tái wān mín zhèng fǔ.” Liberty Times. June 14, 2016, sec. Society. //news.ltn.com.tw/news/society/breakingnews/1729287.

Naím, Moisés. “Threats To Democracy Here And Abroad.” Think Tank. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 21, 2016. //carnegieendowment.org/2016/12/21/threats-to-democracy-here-and-abroad-pub-66537.

Nilsson-Wright, John. “Populism Comes to South Korea.” Think Tank. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, December 20, 2016. https://www.chathamhouse.org//node/26949.

Rosa Balfour, Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Catherine Fieschi, Heather Grabbe, Christopher Hill, and Timo Lochocki. “EUROPE’S TROUBLEMAKERS – The Populist Challenge to Foreign Policy.” Think Tank Publication. Brussels: European Policy Centre, March 8, 2016. //www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_6377_europe_s_troublemakers.pdf.

“Venezuela’s Maduro Sees Conspiracy of the ‘Bourgeoisie’ in Factory Shut Downs | News | DW.COM | 15.05.2016.” Deutsche Welle, May 15, 2016, sec. Top Stories. //www.dw.com/en/venezuelas-maduro-sees-conspiracy-of-the-bourgeoisie-in-factory-shut-downs/a-19258912.

Zakaria, Fareed. “Populism on the March.” Foreign Affairs, October 17, 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-10-17/populism-march.


[1] Rosa Balfour et al., “EUROPE’S TROUBLEMAKERS – The Populist Challenge to Foreign Policy,” Think Tank Publication (Brussels: European Policy Centre, March 8, 2016), //www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_6377_europe_s_troublemakers.pdf.

[2] John Nilsson-Wright, “Populism Comes to South Korea,” Think Tank, Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, (December 20, 2016), https://www.chathamhouse.org//node/26949.

[3] Xiao Tong Lai, “Bu Man lǎo róng mín bèi rǔ  dà chén jū mín kàng yì tái wān mín zhèng fǔ,” Liberty Times, June 14, 2016, sec. Society, //news.ltn.com.tw/news/society/breakingnews/1729287.

[4] Fareed Zakaria, “Populism on the March,” Foreign Affairs, October 17, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-10-17/populism-march.

[5] “Venezuela’s Maduro Sees Conspiracy of the ‘Bourgeoisie’ in Factory Shut Downs | News | DW.COM | 15.05.2016,” Deutsche Welle, May 15, 2016, sec. Top Stories, //www.dw.com/en/venezuelas-maduro-sees-conspiracy-of-the-bourgeoisie-in-factory-shut-downs/a-19258912.

[6] Moisés Naím, “Threats To Democracy Here And Abroad,” Think Tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (December 21, 2016), //carnegieendowment.org/2016/12/21/threats-to-democracy-here-and-abroad-pub-66537.

[7] Zakaria, “Populism on the March.”

Hanyu Huang